Negative campaigning is nothing new in American politics.
But as the 2008 election season rolls toward its Nov. 4 finish, the Rosenmeier Center Forum Series posed the question: Can there be civility in campaigns?
The Rosenmeier Center on Thursday brought a panel of former politicians and media members to the Dryden Theatre at Central Lakes College in Brainerd to see if there was an answer to the question. In the end, all agreed that an educated voter, one who won't accept negative campaigns, is the best way to bring civility back to politics.
The panel consisted of former DFL state Sen. Roger Moe, former U.S. Democratic Sen. Mark Dayton, former Republican state Rep. Dale Walz, former Crow Wing County Commissioner Gary Walters, Brainerd Dispatch Publisher Terry McCollough and Dispatch Associate Editor Mike O'Rourke.
Former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton, (right) D-Minn., discussed civility in campaigns Thursday at the Gordon Rosenmeier Center forum at the Dryden Theatre on the Brainerd campus of Central Lakes College. Others members of the panel included former state Rep. Dale Walz (left), R-Brainerd, former Crow Wing County Commissioner Gary Walters, Brainerd Dispatch publisher Terry McCollough, Brainerd Dispatch associate editor Mike O'Rourke and former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
About 40 people attended the forum, the first of the season for the Rosenmeier Center. In addition to hearing from the panel, people were able to pose their own questions regarding campaigns and the media.
Leading off the discussion, Moe said politics was a human interactive sport based on personal relationships and building friendships. He said the Legislature has gotten away from that by separating into their caucuses and offered ideas that could shrink that divide.
Moe suggested taking away redistricting from the Legislature to foster competition and ensure campaigns are run on the ideas that are important to the people, not the political parties. He also said ethics laws should be changed because they have restricted interaction between legislators and proposed a ban on questionnaires from special interest groups.
Dayton said there needs to be accountability in campaigns, with disclosure of where every campaign dollar comes from.
"Ultimately, the voters will be the judge and jury," Dayton said.
Walz warned against a ban on special interest groups because the First Amendment guarantees free speech. He also said it was important to remember that there's a difference between attack campaigns and negative campaigns. He said attack campaigns focus on an opponent's issues in an honest way. Negative campaigns go beyond that, he said, in personally attacking an opponent.
Walters, who was a last-minute replacement to the panel, said the public was, to a degree, to blame for negative campaigns, equating it with people slowing down to look at a car crash.
"We like negative ads when it's against their guy but if it's against your guy, you get upset and call it negative campaigning," Walters said.
From the Dispatch's perspective, O'Rourke said it was the newspaper's role to not be censors but to challenge candidates and politicians on their positions, point out inaccuracies, seek opposing viewpoints and let the readers decide. That job has been more difficult for the newspaper in recent years because there are more avenues for comment in editorials, Open Forum letters, Vox Pop submissions and story comments on the paper's Web site.
"If civility is really judged to be a good quality, it's up to the politicians to set the tone," O'Rourke said. "It's not our job, as we see it, to sanitize the messy world of politics."
Speaking on campaign ads, McCollough noted that nationally 90 percent of a candidate's ad money is being spent on television, where locally ads are placed on radio, in newspapers and on yard signs. He said the Dispatch closely monitors all ads for accuracy and fairness.
"I'd say overall, local campaign ads and local campaigns are very clean with few problems," he said.
But nationally, McCollough noted a trend that campaign advertising is becoming more negative and in some cases dishonest.
"If you're like me and you're sick of these ads already, and you're trying to say, 'How do I defend myself these next six weeks?,' the control is in your hand," McCollough said holding up a television remote.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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